A few years ago, people started talking about this period as the Golden Age of Whiskey. I'm not sure who coined the phrase, but it might have been Chuck Cowdery, who also wrote about it in the most recent edition of his Bourbon Country Reader in which he questions whether the Golden Age is good or bad for consumers.
The thing about this Golden Age, though, is that it's over. Like an economic recession, it's hard to judge exactly when a Golden Age ends until it's been over for some time, but I would estimate that it began in the late 1990s and ended around 2009.
These are the elements that characterized the Golden Age of Whiskey:
- Improved quality: Whiskey was simply better than ever with the advent of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the Van Winkle line, the expansion of Four Roses to the US, the resurrection of rye, more great Scotch than ever coming to the US, and the introduction of quality Irish and Japanese whiskeys
- Availability of Closed Distillery Whiskey: Whiskey from Michter's, Stitzel-Weller, Brora, Port Ellen and other closed distilleries was available at fairly reasonable prices. In 2003, you could easily find a Port Ellen independent bottling for under $200 and an A.H. Hirsch for $75.
- Innovation: Companies like Buffalo Trace, Bruichladdich, Compass Box and others pushed the boundaries of age, peat, proof, barrel management and other elements, along with eliminating added coloring and chill filtering.
- Dusties: There was still a plethora of dusties on the shelves and people seemed to have no problem finding really good old whiskey.
- Availability and Reasonable Prices: All of this whisky was widely available and reasonably priced. There was a time when you could walk into a store at nearly any time of year and find Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg and other whiskeys that barely touch store shelves these days.
In contrast, today's whiskey market is characterized by the following:
- Younger whiskeys and dropped age statements: Because it's become so popular, whiskey is being marketed younger and without age statements. Macallan is the latest, and most dramatic, distillery to eliminate age statements, but it's happened to so many bourbons it would be difficult to list them all. We are all paying more for less.
- Inflation and Over-Pricing: Whiskey prices in both the primary and secondary markets are through the roof. Limited releases and gimmicks abound to wrench every last dollar from the thirsty public. Price to quality ratios are completely out of whack, and the secondary market seems to have no ceiling for even recent whiskeys, which in turn drives up prices in the primary market from companies that see they are not realizing their full potential profit.
- Availability: Scarcity is now a huge issue. As distilleries run out of their glut whiskey, consumers suffer shortages, particularly of rye whiskeys lately, and people fight over each release of Pappy Van Winkle and the BTAC like it's this year's must-have Christmas gift.
- Gimmicks vs. Innovation
It seems that gimmicks have replaced innovation as the centerpiece of new whiskeys. We hear less about new techniques and more about the whiskey that went to space, was based on a replica or survived a natural disaster. Finishing was innovative when it first appeared, but now it's old hat, yet distilleries still crow every time they dump a whiskey into a wine barrel for two months. There are still vast areas of whiskey production that have yet to be explored (yeast anyone? corn varieties?), and while innovation still exists, the big ideas of the earlier period seem to have been replaced by gimmicks.
Now, I'm not saying there isn't great whiskey and even reasonably priced great whiskey on the market, but I do think there is much less of it. In part, whiskey is a victim of its own success, and there is just not enough to go around, but companies which are putting profit ahead of quality are also to blame. All of these factors have conspired to change the market and end the Golden Age.
Not all is lost though; there are a number of promising signs. Distilleries are increasing capacity and new distilleries open every day. Many of the new distilleries have put out some terrible stuff, but all it takes is a few gems to grow and thrive. I would guess that in ten to fifteen years, once all of this new whiskey, micro and macro alike, has had time to age, we may enter a Silver Age...and when we do, I'll be there.